Just My Type
How much do our romantic partners vary?
Posted Feb 01, 2021
A large part of the conversation on the reality television shows I have been watching is dominated by the discussion of whether or not a potential partner is a person’s “type.” While some of the reality contestants note they are looking for a musician or artist, others have shared that they only date cowboys.
Some assess their relationship hopefuls within a few seconds and decide that they simply cannot date this person because he/she/they are nothing like the individuals they usually date. Conversely, others will immediately discount a person for being too similar to their type because they don’t want to be led down the familiar path of heartbreak and destruction. So, what can we make of this? Do we have a “type?"
Eastwick, Harden, Shukusky, Morgan, and Joel (2017) conducted three studies to examine just how much people’s romantic partners vary from one another. Their first study, which included 97 university students who provided photos of at least two ex-partners, looked at the similarities of their partners’ attributes. Participants provided links to their ex-partners’ photographs, which were later rated by research assistants as to their attractiveness, masculinity, and dominance. The results demonstrated clustering of partner qualities, meaning that some people had partners that were all attractive or were all dominant (Eastwick et al., 2017).
The focal person was also rated, and it was found that “…attractive focal persons tended to have attractive partners, masculine focal persons tended to have masculine partners, and dominant focal persons tended to have dominant partners” (Eastwick et al., 2017, p. 845). The similarities between ex-partners were shown whether the relationship was serious or not. The authors share that mate value can explain these results, as those who were high in any of the three characteristics that are associated with romantic desirability (attractiveness, masculinity, and dominance) were likely to attract partners who also possessed similar characteristics.
The second study examined 574 participants from the Add Health dataset sampled from schools. The researchers examined how partners matched in seven areas: delinquency, educational aspirations, depression, self-esteem, intelligence, religiosity, and vitality. Clustering was also shown in this study; however, the effect size was small. Similarities were a result of demographic stratification, meaning that certain schools tend to attract certain types of students. The authors provide the example that an intelligent person may be more likely to date another intelligent person because they both attend a school with intelligent people.
The final study analyzed 145 men who were rated on a website by two or more women who personally knew them and identified themselves as current or former romantic partners. Women indicated how they knew the men and rated their appearance, humor, manners, ambition, and commitment on a 1-5 scale. Those who indicated that they hooked up or were in a relationship with the man also rated him in terms of sexual satisfaction.
Women also selected the men’s best and worst qualities from a list of hashtags. Results demonstrated little evidence of clustering; all of the women who rated the man (focal person) demonstrated low levels of agreement. This means that “…past and present partners do not agree about a focal person’s desirability, sexual satisfactoriness, or his positive and negative qualities” (p. 854).
Taken together, these results suggest that people tend to find others who are similar to them in attributes based on context. As people come into contact with one another, there is a selection of those who have traits that are considered advantageous and desirable. As these relationships progress and people get to know one another, partners are judged less on these qualities and more on relationship-specific factors (Eastwick et al., 2017).
In another study examining “type,” Park and MacDonald (2019) analyzed data from 322 participants from a 9-year longitudinal study in Germany. Participants rated their current and past partners’ personalities on a series of 5-point scales. The researchers found that there was consistency in the choices people made when it came to their partners’ personalities, and in fact, people selected those similar to themselves. While their study relied on self-reports, the results suggest that people tend to pick the same type of partner over and over again, at least in terms of their perceived personality.
So how does this all relate back to the reality shows and their ongoing discussion of daters’ types? Perhaps a person should focus less on the perceived blueprint for their perfect match and more on their environmental surroundings. This is because the people you tend to date are a mixture of those you have the good fortune of meeting, based on your location/environmental context, and those who have qualities similar to you.
Eastwick, P. W., Harden, K. P., Shukusky, J. A., Morgan, T. A., & Joel, S. (2017). Consistency and inconsistency among romantic partners over time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112(6), 838- 859.
Park, Y., & MacDonald, G. (2019). Consistency between individuals' past and current romantic partners' own reports of their personalities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(26), 12793-12797.